Will the clothes make the man?

He is cute, almost cuddly, with a harmless smirk and a sandy mop that maintains its state of calculated dishevelment as he scampers about the soundstage, grabbing props, dropping jokes, chattering continuously like a rapper without a beat.

He wears a tight, grass-green V-neck sweater, several braided string bracelets--the kind schoolkids wear--and worn jeans with the fly cut away to expose buttons. He sports the requisite two-day stubble. As he does his TV personality thing, he is energetic, glib, undeniably cool.

He is Todd Oldham, MTV's resident fashion designer, and he flits about from subject to subject as fast as his young viewers exhaust their attention spans. His message, if there is any: Fashion is fun.

For this six-minute segment of House of Style, shot last month at MTV's Manhattan studios, Oldham and show host Rebecca Romijn mow down a list of Heloise hints for the hip. Sometimes ingenious, sometimes preposterous, and always cheap, they include how to make your own wallpaper--using multiple Xeroxed images, which Oldham slaps up with Elmer's Glue--and how to stuff old socks with herbs to create an eye-soothing nighttime treatment.

"Clean socks," Oldham says after just the right pause, offering the obviously premeditated punch line.

At the end of the bit, Romijn and Oldham take turns smearing homemade beauty concoctions on each other. The fashion designer spreads plain yogurt with rosemary on Romijn's face. At the same time, Romijn, who established her fame as a model in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issues, works an ooze of smashed bananas and avocados into Oldham's hair, moving slowly--as he instructs--from front to back.

For about the third time in this tiny segment, as Romijn winds her fingers sensuously through his hair, Oldham promises that his primitive beauty aids will "add zing to your sex life."

"You say that about everything," Romijn teases.
Smiling into the camera, with avocado glop dripping from his nose, Oldham shoots back: "Hey--we're here to help."

One thing's for sure: You'd never catch Ralph or Calvin in squished avocados.

But Todd Oldham--whom some industry insiders refer to as "Mr. Youthquake" because of his preternatural ability to delight the hip and celebrated--is anything but the stereotypical fashion designer. The Dallas native, who moved to New York nearly a decade ago, is uniquely a product of MTV--from his exacting image control to the cut-and-paste ethos that defines his couture fashions.

"Todd is very TV-friendly," says House of Style producer Alisa Bellettini. "He is just a natural."

He's also a remarkably nice guy, a self-taught Texas boy who's maintained his manners in the midst of big money and bigger egos--even if his humility is formulated precisely for media consumption.

To MTV's audience of 4.5 million 15- to 34-year-olds, Oldham is the face of fashion. He's appeared as a regular on House of Style since 1993, and while his viewers may not be able to afford his $2,000 dresses, they can subscribe to his why-not? philosophy. For those who want panache but are short on cash, Oldham supplies the answer: garage-sale refuse turned into interior design, thrift-shop finds transformed into fashion. It's the look of simulated trashiness that's defined an entire generation.

Oldham is also well loved among those inclined to plunk down more than a thousand for a frock. His celebrity couture clients are legion. Among them, in ascending order of coolness: Susan Sarandon, Julia Roberts, Uma Thurman.

An Oldham party dress, probably his bestseller in the high-end market, is typically a skimpy but intricately constructed affair. In his most recent fall collection, he had one number that looked as though the model had been wrapped in beaded ribbons.

His designs often play on unexpected combinations. This season, he presented a pinstripe suit with the stripes fashioned from faux pearls. He has embroidered toaster images on jackets and attached pot-holders as pockets.

Boring people, they say, do not wear Todd Oldham clothes. Fun people do--people out raving at 4 in the morning. People who get on the guest list, people who get past the velvet rope. Todd Oldham is the premier designer for kids who go to clubs--in a limo.

For almost a decade now, Oldham's whimsical work has been splashed across the editorial pages of Vogue, Glamour, Marie Claire, and other fashion magazines. "He's a complete original creative genius," gushes Glenda Bailey, an executive editor of Marie Claire who has championed Oldham and scheduled a spread of his clothes in an upcoming issue. Building on that kind of exposure, Oldham, in the past four years, has opened boutiques in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and Tokyo that sell his products exclusively.

The thirtysomething designer and MTV personality fits the definition of phenomenon. But--perhaps realizing that you can't be a hot young thing forever--Oldham's financial backers are now planning to take the designer one step further. Instead of just cheerleading for the MTV crowd, they want him to dress them. They're urging him to sell his wares to a broader group, for bigger profits, than the relatively small couture crowd. Through licensing, they want to propel Oldham into the ranks of the omnipresent, a la Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. They intend to transform Oldham's logo--a crown--into an all-American icon and his brand into $50 million in sales.

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen